Food Fakeout!

Cereal box created by Deb Dinger, photographed by Bianca Alexis

Don’t worry if you didn’t ace the quiz, because this story wouldn’t exist if we expected you to get those questions right. They’re tricky. And so are all the little things in your environment that are causing you to eat too much in one sitting or think unhealthy food is good for you. Let us explain.

Good nutrition is not only about choosing what to eat, but also about when to eat and how much to eat. So you’re not just deciding between choco puffs and corn flakes. You also have to pick a bowl, decide when to stop pouring into it, and choose whether or not to add more sugar.

You make 200 of these food decisions a day, according to Brian Wansink, the head of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. You may be aware of only 25. The rest are unconscious. And almost all are influenced by sneaky factors, from the commercials you see on TV to the label on the package. Very few are influenced by actual hunger.

So how can you get the power back over these decisions, so that you’re making the healthiest choices possible? Read on as we explain each quiz question. You’ll learn a little something about picking foods that will truly fuel your body best—and how to serve yourself a portion that won’t give you a stomachache afterward.

Tricky Truth #1: Plate Size Matters

What was so tricky about judging how much those glasses hold?

Short, wide things can look smaller than tall, skinny things, even if they have more volume. That means you’re more likely to serve too much into a wide glass or dish.

Plate size matters too. With a big plate or bowl, a normal-size portion looks smaller in comparison. (See for yourself in the images above.) That means you’re going to serve yourself more food to fill it up. In one experiment, people scooped—and ate—a fifth more ice cream with a 24-ounce bowl than with a 16-ounce bowl.

Be Foolproof: Pay attention to portion size, and don’t just load your bowl, plate, or glass to capacity. Remember, you can always get seconds if one serving doesn’t fill you up!

Tricky Truth #2: Too Many Servings

Now you know the truth. Your entrée can actually have up to 3.5 servings!

That’s because restaurants and food companies keep making their products larger without telling you that all that food is not meant to be eaten in one sitting. Don’t believe it? The biggest soda on the McDonald’s menu when the chain opened in 1940 was 7 ounces. Today the restaurant’s small is 16 ounces!

Another sneaky way we end up eating too much: Research shows that when a lot of cookies or pretzels are pictured on a package, people eat more of them, because the image guides their sense of how many it’s appropriate to devour at one time.

Be Foolproof: “Always order the small when you’re out. It’s going to be big anyway,” says nutritionist Lisa Young, author of The Portion Teller. And at home, check the serving size on the back of the bag or box, then put that much in a baggie or bowl.

Tricky Truth #3: Labels Are Tricky

Yes, in this comparison, the cookies actually have less sugar.

But that doesn’t mean you should eat more cookies. It just means you should be careful with products that claim to be healthy, or that you associate with “healthy” brands. They may not fuel you the way you think they will.

This is what’s called the halo effect: When something has one good quality (“whole-grain”) or a positive rep (granola), it shines like a halo—and we think everything else about it is grand.

Want another example? Say you’re at a “healthy” smoothie shop and see a berry shake that’s labeled “low-fat and all-natural.” So you say, “Cool! I’ll get the extra large!” And then you order your smoothie . . . a snack that has almost a day’s worth of sugar and more calories than a fast-food meal.

Be Foolproof: Don’t make decisions on autopilot! Sometimes just stopping to think (for example: Could this “healthy” chain restaurant’s Philly cheesesteak really be as good for me as its lean turkey sandwich?) will help. And when in doubt about those “all-natural” chips or “organic” frozen meals? Check the nutrition label. “If it’s high in calories, then chances are it’s going to be high in fat and sugar too,” says Young.

 

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